The intimate and charming Nuyorican Poets Cafe offers a satirically stark take on America’s future in Life Among the Aryans. This dystopian piece imagines a country where the President is Jewish, the head of the FBI a woman, and all the ‘white working-class’ thought to be sacrosanct is crumbling around them. To add insult to injury, the government is offering reparations to black citizens as compensation for past grievances. The ‘white working-class’ has two options: Either fight them or join them. This is a play that is as insightful as it is frightening.
Life Among the Aryans is the latest work from Ishmael Reed, the American poet, novelist, essayist, and Pulitzer-Prize nominee. Directed by Rome Neal, the play’s thematic nexus lies in disillusionment and exploitation. Two white nationalists, John Shaw (Frank Martin) and Michael Mulvaney (Tom Angelo), see an America that has left the ‘white working-class’ behind in favor of appeasing the rest of society. These developments are the embodiment of their discontent, and they yearn for a return to the America of old; they want to make America great again.
Reed has produced a script that relies heavily on dialogue. Under the direction of Neal, the interactions between Shaw and Mulvaney are where an insight into the psyche of white nationalism is introduced. The playwright certainly isn’t trying to trigger sympathy in his audience. However, there is a degree of empathy, as the character of Shaw, in particular, offers a historical and anecdotal background to his resentment.
But the pair’s naïveté and disillusionment is highlighted by their relationship with the charming Leader Matthews (Timothy Mullins). As effective as Reed is at articulating the discourse that those disenfranchised use to self-perpetuate their discontent, he is equally proficient at expressing the language used to then exploit those disaffected. Leader Matthews preys on the duo, with the promise of glory and notoriety as an incentive. This gives the two men, both unemployed, a raison d’etre. Stella (Lisa Pakulski) and Barbara (Jennifer Glassgow), play the frustrated spouses of Shaw and Mulvaney respectively. They are forced to work around the clock to support, not only themselves and their husbands, but their husbands’ contributions to the movement. The pair are a comedic highlight in the piece, their being the ones to call Leader Matthews’ intentions into question.
Concurrently, elitist America of the northeast is examined for its disconnect to the rest of the country. Dobbin Robb Sobbins (Allam Forster) is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the New York Anglo Weekly. In an opening monologue, he freely admits to previously disregarding much of working-class America in his analyses and reports. He acknowledges this fact may have led to the election of President Spanky, a reality tv host. Thus, he plans to visit the fictional town of Whoop and Holler, Alabama, to investigate the white working class. Sobbins shares with Shaw and Mulvaney a naïveté which becomes gradually clearer as the play develops.
Neal directs Life Among the Aryans with an underlying question omnipresent: If you can’t fight them, should you join them? This is a conundrum faced by the characters in the play; Dr. Krokman (Maurice Carlton) offers white members of society an opportunity to change the color of their skin. In a country where the ‘white working-class’ feel increasingly marginalized, this is a possibility for a fresh start.
Set designer, Marlon Campbell, offers a simple and effective stage. Props are used to set the scene, whether it be a microphone for Sobbins, common commodities like Jack Daniels and Doritos for Shaw and Mulvaney, or a syringe for Dr. Krokman. Carolyn Adams as Costume Designer deserves particular credit. The juxtaposition between Shaw and Mulvaney’s military attire and Leader Matthews’ expensive suit is an apt interpretation of the growing dichotomy in aesthetic standard one expects from extremist groups. Equally, Stella’s sense of entrapment by her job is shown by her appearing in her supermarket’s uniform.
This is a strong offering from Ishmael Reed that is admirably acted. If slightly lacking a consistent flow at times, this is something that will only improve as the run continues. The core message never wavers, and will make the audience leave feeling pensive. In what is undoubtedly a politically unclear time, this is a play that serves a very important purpose.
Life Among the Aryans (though June 24, 2018)
Nuyorican Poets Café, 236 East Third Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-780-9386 (Café) or 877-987-6487 (Ticketfly) or visit http://www.nuyorican.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission